New Threats, Old Enmity Pummel Nepal’s Christians


Armed group that forced over 1,500 government officials to quit now threatens pastors.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, September 16 (CDN) — A year after police busted an underground militant Hindu organization that had bombed a church and two mosques, Nepal’s Christians are facing new threats.

An underground group that speaks with bombs and has coerced hundreds of government officials into quitting their jobs is threatening Christian clergy with violence if they do not give in to extortion demands, Christian leader said.

The Nepal Christian Society (NCS), an umbrella group of denominations, churches and organizations, met in the Kathmandu Valley yesterday (Sept. 15) to discuss dangers amid reports of pastors receiving phone calls and letters from the Unified National Liberation Front (Samyukta Jatiya Mukti Morcha), an armed group demanding money and making threats. The group has threatened Christian leaders in eastern and western Nepal, as well as in the Kathmandu Valley.

“The pastors who received the extortion calls do not want to go public for fear of retaliation,” said Lok Mani Dhakal, general secretary of the NCS. “We decided to wait and watch a little longer before approaching police.”

The Front is among nearly three dozen armed groups that mushroomed after the fall of the military-backed government of the former king of Nepal, Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah, in 2006. It became a household name in July after 34 senior government officials – designated secretaries of village development committees – resigned en masse, pleading lack of security following threats by the Front.

Ironically, the resignations occurred in Rolpa, a district in western Nepal regarded as the cradle of the communist uprising in 1996 that led to Nepal becoming a secular federal republic after 10 years of civil war.

Nearly 1,500 government officials from 27 districts have resigned after receiving threats from the Front. Despite its apparent clout, it remains a shadowy body with little public knowledge about its leaders and objectives. Though initially active in southern Nepal, the group struck in the capital city of Kathmandu on Saturday (Sept. 11), bombing a carpet factory.

The emergence of the new underground threat comes a year after police arrested Ram Prasad Mainali, whose Nepal Defense Army had planted a bomb in a church in Kathmandu, killing three women during a Roman Catholic mass.

Christians’ relief at Mainali’s arrest was short-lived. Besides facing threats from a new group, the community has endured longstanding animosity from the years when Nepal was a Hindu state; the anti-Christian sentiment refuses to die four years after Parliament declared the nation secular.

When conversions were a punishable offense in Nepal 13 years ago, Ishwor Pudasaini had to leave his home in Giling village, Nuwakot district, because he became a Christian. Pudasaini, now a pastor in a Protestant church, said he still cannot return to his village because of persecution that has increased with time.

“We are mentally tortured,” the 32-year-old pastor told Compass. “My mother is old and refuses to leave the village, so I have to visit her from time to time to see if she is all right. Also, we have some arable land, and during monsoon season it is imperative that I farm it. But I go in dread.”

Pudasaini, who pastors Assembly of God Church, said that when he runs into his neighbors, they revile him and make threatening gestures. His family is not allowed to enter any public place, and he is afraid to spend nights in his old home for fear of being attacked. A new attack occurred in a recent monsoon, when villagers disconnected the family’s water pipes.

“Things reached such a head this time that I was forced to go to the media and make my plight public,” he says.

Pudasaini, his wife Laxmi and their two children have been living in the district headquarters, Bidur town. His brother Ram Prasad, 29, was thrown out of a local village’s reforms committee for becoming a Christian. Another relative in the same village, Bharat Pudasaini, lost his job and was forced to migrate to a different district.

“Bharat Pudasaini was a worker at Mulpani Primary School,” says Pudasaini. “The school sacked him for embracing Christianity, and the villagers forced his family to leave the village. Even four years after Nepal became officially secular, he is not allowed to return to his village and sell his house and land, which he wants to, desperately. He has four children to look after, and the displacement is virtually driving the family to starvation.”

Since Bidur, where the administrative machinery is concentrated, is safe from attacks, Pudasani said it is becoming a center for displaced Christians.

“There are dozens of persecuted Christians seeking shelter here,” he said.

One such displaced person was Kamla Kunwar, a woman in her 30s whose faith prompted her husband to severely beat her and throw her out of their home in Dhading district in central Nepal. She would eventually move in with relatives in Nuwakot.

Pudasaini said he chose not to complain of his mistreatment, either to the district administration or to police, because he does not want to encourage enmity in the village.

“My religion teaches me to turn the other cheek and love my enemies,” he said. “I would like to make the village come to Christ. For that I have to be patient.”

Dozens of villages scattered throughout Nepal remain inimical to Christians. In May, five Christians, including two women, were brutally attacked in Chanauta, a remote village in Kapilavastu district where the majority are ethnic Tharus.

Once an affluent people, the Tharus were displaced by migrating hordes from the hills of Nepal, as well as from India across the border, and forced into slavery. Today, they are considered to be “untouchables” despite an official ban on that customary practice of abuse and discrimination. In the villages, Tharus are not allowed to enter temples or draw water from the sources used by other villagers.

Tharus, like other disadvantaged communities, have been turning to Christianity. Recently five Tharu Christians, including a pastor and two evangelists, were asked to help construct a Hindu temple. Though they did, the five refused to eat the meat of a goat that villagers sacrificed before idols at the new temple.

Because of their refusal, the temple crowd beat them. Two women – Prema Chaudhary, 34, and Mahima Chaudhary, 22 – were as badly thrashed as Pastor Simon Chaudhari, 30, and two evangelists, Samuel Chaudhari, 19, and Prem Chaudhari, 22.

In June, a mob attacked Sher Bahadur Pun, a 68-year-old Nepali who had served with the Indian Army, and his son, Akka Bahadur, at their church service in Myagdi district in western Nepal. Pun suffered two fractured ribs.

The attack occurred after the Hindu-majority village decided to build a temple. All villagers were ordered to donate 7,000 rupees (US$93), a princely sum in Nepal’s villages, and the Christians were not spared. While the Puns paid up, they refused to worship in the temple. Retaliation was swift.

The vulnerability of Christians has escalated following an administrative vacuum that has seen violence and crime soar. Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal, who had been instrumental in the church bombers’ arrest, resigned in June due to pressure by the opposition Maoist party. Since then, though there have been seven rounds of elections in Parliament to choose a new premier, none of the two contenders has been able to win the minimum votes required thanks to bitter infighting between the major parties.

An eighth round of elections is scheduled for Sept. 26, and if that too fails, Nepal will have lost four of the 12 months given to the 601-member Parliament to write a new constitution.

“It is shameful,” said Believers Church Bishop Narayan Sharma. “It shows that Nepal is on the way to becoming a failed state. There is acute pessimism that the warring parties will not be able to draft a new constitution [that would consolidate secularism] by May 2011.”

Sharma said there is also concern about a reshuffle in the largest ruling party, the Nepali Congress (NC), set to elect new officers at its general convention starting Friday (Sept. 17). Some former NC ministers and members of Parliament have been lobbying for the restoration of a Hindu state in Nepal; their election would be a setback for secularism.

“We have been holding prayers for the country,” Sharma said. “It is a grim scene today. There is an economic crisis, and Nepal’s youths are fleeing abroad. Women job-seekers abroad are increasingly being molested and tortured. Even the Maoists, who fought for secularism, are now considering creating a cultural king. We are praying that the political deadlock will be resolved, and that peace and stability return to Nepal.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Prospects of Religious Freedom Appear Grim in Islamic Maldives


Two years after political reforms, freedom of faith nowhere in sight.

MALÉ, Maldives, August 10 (CDN) — Visitors to this Islamic island nation get a sense of religious restrictions even before they arrive. The arrival-departure cards given to arriving airline passengers carry a list of items prohibited under Maldivian laws – including “materials contrary to Islam.”

After Saudi Arabia, the Maldives is the only nation that claims a 100-percent Muslim population. The more than 300,000 people in the Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago featuring 1,192 islets 435 miles southwest of Sri Lanka, are all Sunnis.

This South Asian nation, however, has more than 70,000 expatriate workers representing several non-Islamic religions, including Christianity.

Also, around 60,000 tourists, mainly from Europe, visit each year to enjoy the blue ocean and white beaches and normally head straight to one of the holiday resorts built on around 45 islands exclusively meant for tourism. Tourists are rarely taken to the other 200 inhabited islands where locals live.

Nearly one-third of the population lives in the capital city of Malé, the only island where tourists and Maldivians meet.

While the Maldivians do not have a choice to convert out of Islam or to become openly atheist, foreigners in the country can practice their religion only privately.

In previous years several Christian expats have either been arrested for attending worship in private homes or denied visas for several months or years on suspicion of being connected with mission agencies.

According to “liberal estimates,” the number of Maldivian Christians or seekers “cannot be more than 15,” said one source.

“Even if you engage any Maldivian in a discussion on Christianity and the person reports it to authorities, you can be in trouble,” the source said. “A Maldivian youth studying in Sri Lanka became a Christian recently, but when his parents came to know about it, they took him away. We have not heard from him since then.”

The source added that such instances are not uncommon in the Maldives.

“I wish I could attend church, but I am too scared to look for one,” said a European expat worker. “I have not even brought my Bible here; I read it online. I don’t want to take any chances.”

The British reportedly translated the Bible into the local language, Dhivehi, and made it available in the 19th century, as the Maldives was a British protectorate from 1887 to 1965. Today no one knows how the Dhivehi Bible “disappeared.”

“A new translation has been underway for years, and it is in no way near completion,” said the source who requested anonymity.

 

Religion Excluded from Rights

The 2008 constitution, adopted five years after a popular movement for human rights began, states that a “non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.”

Abdulla Yameen, brother of the former dictator of the Maldives and leader of the People’s Alliance party, an ally of the opposition Dhivehi Raiyyathunge Party (Maldivian People’s Party or DRP), told Compass that the issue of religious freedom was “insignificant” for the Maldives.

“There’s no demand for it from the public,” Yameen said. “If you take a public poll, 99 percent of the citizens will say ‘no’ to religious freedom.”

Maldivians are passionate about their religion, Yameen added, referring to a recent incident in which a 37-year-old Maldivian citizen, Mohamed Nazim, was attacked after he told a gathering that he was not a Muslim. On May 28, before a crowd of around 11,000 Maldivians, Nazim told a visiting Indian Muslim televangelist, Zakir Naik, that although he was born to a practicing Muslim family, he was “struggling to believe in religions.”

He also asked Naik about his “verdict on Islam.” The question enraged an angry crowd, with many calling for Nazim’s death while others beat him. He received several minor injuries before police took him away.

“See how the public went after his [Nazim’s] throat,” said Yameen, who studied at Claremont Graduate University in California. When asked if such passion was good for a society, he replied, “Yes. We are an Islamic nation, and our religion is an important part of our collective identity.”

Asked if individuals had no rights, his terse answer was “No.” Told it was shocking to hear his views, he said, “We are also shocked when a nation legalizes gay sex.”

Mohamed Zahid, vice president of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, told Compass that the country has its own definition of human rights.

“It is to protect people’s rights under the sharia [Islamic law] and other international conventions with the exception of religious freedom,” he said. “We are a sovereign nation, and we follow our own constitution.”

Zahid and several other local sources told Compass that the issue of religious rights was “irrelevant” for Maldivians. “Not more than 100 people in the country want religious freedom,” Zahid said.

 

Politics of Religion

Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a virtual dictator for 30 years until 2008, is generally held responsible for creating an atmosphere of religious restrictions in the Maldives, as he sought to homogenize religion in the country by introducing the state version of Sunni Islam. He also led a major crackdown on Christians.

The Protection of Religious Unity Act, enacted in 1994, was an endeavor to tighten the government’s control over mosques and all other Islamic institutions. The Gayoom administration even wrote Friday sermons to be delivered in mosques.

In 1998, Gayoom began a crackdown on alleged missionary activities.

“A radio station based out of India used to air Christian programs via the Seychelles, but the government came to know about it and ensured that they were discontinued with the help of the government in the Seychelles,” said a local Muslim source.

That year, Gayoom reportedly arrested around 50 Maldivians who were suspected to have converted to Christianity and deported 19 foreign workers accused of doing missionary work. A source said Gayoom apparently wanted to regain popularity at a time when his leadership was being questioned.

When the archipelago became a multi-party democracy in October 2008, new President Mohamed Nasheed, a former journalist and activist, was expected to pursue a liberal policy as part of the country’s reforms agenda.

Although Nasheed is the president, his party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), has only 28 members and the support of four independents in the 77-member People’s Majlis (Maldives’ unicameral Parliament). Gayoom, now in his 70s and the leader of the largest opposition party, the DRP, has a simple majority – which presents difficulties in governance. Nasheed pleads helplessness in implementing reforms, citing an intransigent opposition.

Today Gayoom’s party accuses President Nasheed of not being able to protect the country’s distinct identity and culture, which the opposition says are rooted in Islam. The Gayoom-led parliament recently sought to impeach the education minister for proposing to make Islam and Dhivehi lessons optional – rather than mandatory – in high school.

To pre-empt the impeachment move, the whole cabinet of Nasheed resigned on June 29, which caused a major political crisis that led to violent street protests. The Nasheed administration allegedly arrested some opposition members, including Gayoom’s brother, Yameen. Political tensions and uncertainties continued at press time.

Now that President Nasheed’s popularity is declining – due to perceptions that he has become as authoritarian as his predecessor – it is feared that, amid immense pressure by the opposition to follow conservative policies, he might begin to follow in Gayoom’s footsteps.

 

Growing Extremism

Both the ruling and opposition parties admit that Islamic extremism has grown in the country. In October 2007, a group of young Maldivians engaged government security forces in a fierce shootout on Himandhoo Island.

Nasheed’s party alleges that Gayoom’s policy of promoting the state version of Sunni Islam created an interest to discern “true Islam,” with extremists from Pakistan stepping in to introduce “jihadism” in the Maldives. The DRP, on the other hand, says that behind the growth of extremism is the current government’s liberal policy of allowing Muslims of different sects to visit the Maldives to preach and give lectures, including the conservative Sunni sect of “Wahhabis.”

Until the early 1990s, Maldivian women would hardly wear the black burqa (covering the entire body, except the eyes and hands), and no men would sport a long beard – outward marks of Wahhabi Muslims, said the Muslim source, adding that “today the practice has become common.”

Still, Islam as practiced in the Maldives is pragmatic and unlike that of Saudi Arabia, he said. “People here are liberal and open-minded.”

As extremism grows, though, it is feared that radical Islamists may go to any extent to extra-judicially punish anyone suspected of being a missionary or having converted away from Islam, and that they can pressure the government to remain indifferent to religious freedom.

How long will it take for the Maldives to allow religious freedom?

“Maybe after the Maldivian government legalizes gay sex,” the Muslim source joked.

Report from Compass Direct News

25 years later, the Karen refugee crisis continues unabated


In 1984, the first wave of Myanmarese refugees fleeing from conflict began flooding across the border into Thailand, reports MNN.

25 years later, the crisis continues. Patrick Klein with Vision Beyond Borders says, "There are currently over 150,000 refugees that have come into Thailand from Burma. There are still more flooding across the border."

The persecution and violence seems to have government support. Many of the refugees are of the minority Karen people, who are among the most discriminated against in Burma. "One of the generals said, "By the year 2010, there will be no Karen people left. We’re going to wipe them off the face of the earth."

Is the campaign ethnic or faith-based? Klein says it’s a bit both. Many of the Karen are Christians. However, according to Voice of the Martyrs Canada, Buddhism is strongly entrenched in the Myanmarese majority; only about five percent of Christians in Burma are converts from Buddhism.

VOMC has more grim news. These Christians have been raped, tortured and murdered. In the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which devastated the country in early May 2008, Burmese authorities reportedly denied relief aid to several Christians.

The harassment is growing more blatant. In his last visit, Klein said he visited with a group of orphaned refugees. Myanmar junta soldiers had threatened to kill all of the children in the home, so the group fled in the middle of the night. All 86 children took refuge 150 yards away in Thailand.

Vision Beyond Borders works with several church partners and at least six orphanage programs in Myanmar. Many of these sprang to life as the result of the deadly Cyclone Nargis last year. Klein says, "Because of the compassion of the Christians reaching out to these refugees coming in, even the Buddhists now are coming to faith in Jesus Christ, so the Gospel is increasing."

Persecution will follow. "It seems like they’re trying to stamp out the church," explains Klein, adding, "They know that the number of Christians is growing. But it seems like whenever there’s real persecution, the church seems to grow."

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

MEXICO: CHRISTIANS JAILED FOR ACTEAL MASSACRE WIN RELEASE


Supreme Court rules their rights were violated; violence threatened in Chiapas.

MEXICO CITY, Aug. 13 (Compass Direct News) – At least 20 men accused of participating in a massacre in Chiapas state in December 1997 left prison early this morning – amid concerns over threats of violence at their home communities near San Cristobal de las Casas – following a Supreme Court ruling yesterday that their convictions violated fundamental norms of justice.

The release of the 20 men, most of them evangelical Christians, came after Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled in a 4-1 decision that they had been convicted in unfair trials in which prosecutors fabricated testimony and illegally obtained evidence. Area evangelicals view the imprisoned Christians as caught between survivors clamoring for convictions and government police and military forces eager to shift blame away from their minions following the Dec. 22, 1997 killing of 45 civilians in Acteal village.

“Acteal is a double tragedy,” attorney Javier Cruz Angulo reportedly said after the ruling. “On the one hand you have an abominable massacre, and on the other more than 50 human beings imprisoned without proofs.”

The court will review the cases of another 31 men convicted in connection with the massacre, and six more will be given new trials, according to news reports.

The identities of those released were not immediately known. As 32 of those imprisoned for the crime were Christians and another 15 received Christ while in prison, most of the previous total of 57 prisoners are Christians.

“In prison, the majority of us converted to the Presbyterian faith,” Tomas Perez Mendez, 60, told El Universal before the Supreme Court decision; at press time it was not known if he was among those released.

He told the Mexican newspaper that he bears no resentment even though his imprisonment led to illnesses that contributed to the deaths of family members. “My wife is ill, my father and one brother died from sorrow at seeing us here in prison . . . I no longer feel anger or resentment against those who accused me, and I plan to preach.”

Authorities had told a total of 57 prisoners that they would be freed after their paperwork was reviewed, a source in Chiapas told Compass.

“Naturally, those prisoners who had been informed of their impending release last week are extremely disappointed, as well wondering if they will ever be released,” said the source, who requested anonymity.

Two brothers, Pablo and Juan Hernandez Perez, reportedly said that they have no home to return to; their house was burned to the ground while they were in prison. Another hoping for release, Javier Vazquez Luna, told El Universal he played no part in the crime, and that indeed his father was one of the victims of the massacre.

The Supreme Court justices stated that they were not ruling on the guilt or innocence of the men, only on the violation of due process.

“During the investigation, their constitutional rights were violated,” the court said in a statement. “The majority of cases … were based on the use of illegally obtained evidence.”

In recent months relatives of the imprisoned men ratcheted up citizen campaigns seeking their freedom, backed by many others. For several years Presbyterian churches have carried banners outside their buildings requesting justice for those wrongly convicted in the Acteal violence. The Chiapas government had said it could do nothing because the case was under federal jurisdiction.

Pressure to reopen the case has intensified each December with remembrances of the massacre. In spite of intense political pressure to the contrary, the Supreme Court finally agreed to review the facts.

Threats of Violence

Amid statements by survivors of the Acteal crime that tensions could heighten in the area – and a grim warning from a former leader of Las Abejas, a supposedly non-violent group sympathetic to rebel militants whose members were killed in the massacre – defense attorneys and family members of the released men appealed to authorities to provide security and guarantee social peace.

“A former leader of the Abejas made a public declaration that if the men returned to their homes, the Abejas would be waiting for them, and the released prisoners would be repaid for the pain they caused 12 years ago,” the Chiapas source told Compass. “Tensions exist, and with statements like he made, the government is nervous about letting the men return to their homes due to possible violence. At this point, there are still no violent actions, but the threat of an outbreak is real.”

At press time authorities had prevented the released men from returning to the Acteal area, keeping them in a hotel in Berriozabal after loading them onto a truck through a back door of the El Amate prison at 3:35 a.m., El Universal reported.

Initially the prison director refused to see the men’s lawyers when they arrived at El Amate prison in Chiapas near midnight with orders for their release, the Compass source said.

“When he finally relented and met with the lawyers, it was only under extreme pressure from the Mexico City lawyers who refused to be dissuaded,” the source said. “There was an extended time of wrangling before the warden eventually released the prisoners, only under threat of returning to the Supreme Court and the Human Rights Commission about his intransigence.”

The released men had been promised there would be a government-paid bus waiting to take them to San Cristobal de las Casas, he said, but instead they were taken to the hotel in Berriozabal.

“The men were to meet with government officials today in Tuxtla, and we are still awaiting word on their arrival in San Cristobal after some five hours of waiting,” the source said. “It appears there are delaying tactics, hindrances and lack of cooperation in the entire release process.”

Some of the released men were able to meet with family members, and most expressed desire to return to the Acteal area, but the prison director said that authorities had determined that it was not safe for them to go back to their communities, according to El Universal. Authorities have reportedly proposed the possibility of providing them land parcels to avoid their returning to the area of the original conflict.

The evangelical Christians convicted were serving 25- or 36-year sentences and had exhausted all appeals. Some of them say they were arrested because rebel sympathizers with whom they had been embroiled in years of land disputes named them. Others said they were simply nearby when authorities made random round-ups.

Of the 34 men originally convicted, one died in prison and another had been released as a minor.

The family of one prisoner, Agustin Gomez Perez, tried to visit him in 2005. He told El Universal that they had an accident on the way, killing one small child and putting his wife in the hospital for 20 days – leaving their other five children without parents during that period.

Controversy over who killed the 45 people has revolved around whether there was a “massacre” by numerous “paramilitary” villagers or a “confrontation” between a handful of neighboring peasants and Zapatista National Liberation Army rebels. Historian Héctor Aguilar Camín has argued that there was both a confrontation and a massacre, with some overlap between each, but that they were largely separate incidents.

Five confessed killers have testified that they and four others engaged only Zapatista militia to avenge the death of a relative, while the federal attorney general’s office charged that at least 50 pro-government “paramilitaries” descended on a relief camp hermitage full of displaced peasants bent on killing and robbing them. The testimonies of the five confessed killers – four others remain at large – agree that the nine avengers were the only ones involved in the firefights, and that the decision to attack the Zapatistas was a private family decision made with no involvement from government authorities.

They also agree that the sole motive was to avenge the assassination of a relative – the latest of 18 unprosecuted murders by Zapatistas over the previous three months, according to Aguilar Camín.

Government prosecutors unduly dismissed much of the testimony of the five confessed avengers, Aguilar Camín wrote in a 2007 article for Nexos, noting that the killers testified that state security forces were nearby and did nothing. He highlights the judicial irregularities of the round-up and conviction of the peasants – apprehensions without evidence or warrant, charging 83 people with homicide when only 45 people were killed and lack of translators and attorneys for the suspects, Tzotzil Mayans who did not know Spanish.

The Supreme Court pointed out those violations in its ruling. Arturo Farela Gutierrez, head of the National Association of Evangelical Christian Churches, praised the court decision.

“We are in the presence of a court different from that of 12 years ago,” he said, according to El Universal. “The court is strengthened without fear of anything or anyone, and it’s the court that democratic Mexico needs.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

CHURCHES TURN TO ASH IN VICTORIA’S FIRES; SERVICES CONTINUE WITHOUT A CHURCH


While churches continue to disappear in the onslaught of the Victorian bushfires, Ruth Close of the ESA (Evangelisation Society Association) Board has updated the earlier report on the camp center at Marysville (97km/60 miles NE of Melbourne) which was wiped out: “We praise God for the efficient and safe evacuation of all the staff and the group of 90 campers from the Marysville site on Saturday (February 7). Allan Gellert’s quick decisions and actions are commendable. Please continue to pray for the people of Marysville who have lost their homes and all their possessions. Especially pray for God’s comfort for the families who are grieving for those they loved dearly.”

Photos and updates are available here.

Meanwhile, Ken Pullen of the Christian Venues Association said that they have a membership of thirty eight Conference Centres and Camps in Victoria, reports Ramon Williams, special for ASSIST News Service. Twenty three of these are located in the currently fire affected areas of that state. From amongst the 23, the following have been lost: Camp Narbethong at Narbethong, ESA Camping & Conference Centre and El Kanah at Marysville. Mobile Mission Maintenance Headquarters at Whittlesea (MMM support Christian ministries and have been members of our association for many years). It is believed that Breakaway Camps at Taggerty has also been lost.

A further two centers remain not contactable, and a number are still threatened or on alert.

The situation remains volatile with changing winds and it is feared that many more properties and some camps will remain under threat for up to 14 days.

Reports of damage to churches are now filtering through.

The Uniting Church at Kinglake (54km/33 miles NE of Melbourne) survived; the fate of the Marysville church is unknown but presumed grim. “We lost church members, which is worse,” said the Uniting Church’s Victorian media director, Kim Cain. “We are concentrating on the pastoral response at this stage. Uniting Care put a mobile kindergarten at one emergency relief centre to let the children play out their grief and anger.”

The Catholic Church, too, lost its churches at Kinglake and Marysville.

Rev Norm Hart and his wife Patti, of the Anglican Christ Church, Marysville, have lost their church, their home and their parish. Barney Schwartz, writing in The Age newspaper, Melbourne, said: “The Marysville Anglican parish has been obliterated. But they are determined the church will continue.” When water and power returned, those left would gather at someone’s house, said Mrs Hart.

Rev. Stephen Holmes of St Peter’s Anglican Church, Kinglake, feels helpless. His 1923 church no longer exists, nor does most of his parish. “It’s devastating, it’s unbelievable; it’s worse than Iraq — it’s just carnage,” he said. “I’ve been talking to people, hugging people, listening to people, whatever I can do.”

At least one church, Diamond Valley Baptist Church, has opened its doors to co-ordinate volunteers & deliveries of food, clothing and any other useful items.

 

Calls for Prayer

Ian Worby, CEO of United Christian Broadcasters has called for everyone to “pause for a special time of prayer for our nation and the victims of these terrible events” on Wednesday, Feb 11, at 12.30pm, via their network of radio stations across Australia.

The Rev Chris Moroney, Senior Minister at St Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral, Sydney announced that a Special Prayer Service for the Victorian Bushfire Disaster will be held, at 6pm on Wednesday February 11. Rev Moroney said: “We will gather to express our concern and sympathy for all the victims of the bushfire disaster. We will pray for each one to know God’s care and comfort and healing. We will hear the latest news about the tragic events and hear about relief efforts. We will also be taking up a collection for the Archbishop’s Emergency Bushfire Appeal.

Warrnambool’s Anglican Church in Victoria, will hold a half-hour ecumenical service from 12.30pm today (Tuesday) to remember the fire victims.

Christchurch Anglican Cathedral in Darwin, Northern Territory, has already launched prayers for the whole of this week and other churches are expected to take similar initiatives.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

INDIA: MURDER, RAPE, ARSON CONTINUE


Two killed in Uttarakhand state; more violence in Orissa, Karnataka and Kerala.

NEW DELHI, September 24 (Compass Direct News) – The unprecedented wave of anti-Christian attacks that began a month ago continued in the past week with more incidents of murder, rape and arson, mostly in the eastern state of Orissa and southern state of Karnataka. Two Christians were also found murdered in the northern state of Uttarakhand.

“The atmosphere in the Kandhamal district of Orissa is still volatile,” an attorney visiting Kandhamal with a team to provide legal aid to victims told Compass. “Yesterday afternoon, we were going to the Raikia area, but as we were about to reach there, we were informed that a mob had attacked a police station and the police had to open fire. We had to flee Kandhamal right away.”

According to The Indian Express, around 2,000 people, including women, surrounded the Raikia police station yesterday to demand the release of two fellow villagers from Masakadia village who had been arrested on charges of arson and rioting.

Security personnel from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), a federal agency, opened fire to prevent the mob from entering the police station. The security personnel resorted to fire after failing to control the mob with persuasion and the use of batons, added the daily. One person died and two were critically injured from the gunfire.

The attorney also said Hindu extremists had destroyed all communication links in Kandhamal, including mobile phone networks, and blocked some roads with trees and stones.

 

Rape, Murder, Arson in Orissa

Attacks on Christians continued in the Kandhamal district. While a young woman was reportedly gang-raped by unidentified rioters on Sunday night (Sept. 21), a man went missing and was allegedly killed on Friday (Sept. 19).

Father Ajay Singh of the Catholic Archdiocese of Bhubaneswar, Orissa’s capital, told Compass that a local Oriya-language newspaper, Dharitri, reported that a 20-year-old woman was raped by about 15 men in an area under Tikabali police jurisdiction in Kandhamal late on Sept. 21.

The victim, who was living in a relief camp and believed to be Christian, had gone back to her house to see her grandmother. A group of men stormed the house and took her to a nearby jungle and raped her, Singh said, adding that the police had confirmed the incident.

The Press Trust of India (PTI) reported that Iswar Digal, who had taken refuge at Ghumusar Udayagiri relief camp and was believed to be Christian, went missing after he went to meet his ailing father in Gatingia village on Friday (Sept. 19). Digal’s wife, Runima Digal, filed a police complaint stating that Hindu extremists killed her husband after he had gone to the village along with her to visit his father.

She said the extremists had warned them not to return to the village if they did not convert from Christianity to Hinduism. Police, however, have registered only a case of kidnapping, added PTI.

The news agency also reported that at least 10 houses, believed to be that of Christians, were burned in Gochhapada area on Saturday (Sept. 20). An Orissa state official told The Times of India, “It is difficult to guard all the remote areas. But we are trying our best.”

The violence in Kandhamal began following the assassination of a leader of the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his associates on Aug. 23. Although Maoists claimed responsibility for the murder, the VHP put the blame on local Christians, saying they killed him because he was resisting conversion of Hindus to Christianity.

According to the All India Christian Council (AICC), at least 14 districts witnessed violence with Kandhamal as the epicenter, and at least 50,000 people from 300 villages have been affected by the violence, with hundreds still hiding in forests. Some 4,000 houses and 115 churches have been burned or destroyed, and the AICC reported 45 Christians were confirmed dead with five others still missing.

 

Killing in Uttarakhand

Amid persistent tensions in various parts of the country following the violence in Orissa, two Catholics, including a woman, were found murdered on Monday (Sept. 22) in the Dehra Dun district of the northern state of Uttarakhand (formerly known as Uttaranchal).

A 56-year-old Catholic preacher, Sadhu Astey, and his disciple, identified only as Mercy, 32, were found strangled to death at their prayer center, called Samarpanalaya, in Chotta Rampur village near Herbertpur area in Vikasnagar Block, reported The Tribune.

Police said local residents grew suspicious when there was no movement at the center the past two days and informed officers. The center was found ransacked.

“We are investigating these murders to know whether it was done by dacoits [bandits] with an intention to loot, or there is something else,” Police Inspector Harish Verma told media. Dr. Sajan K. George of the Global Council of Indian Christians said he suspected Hindu extremists were behind the killing.

The Tribune said it was the fourth attack on Christians in the Dehra Dun district in the past few months.

Sangh Parivar [family of Hindu nationalist groups led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS] activists had attacked Christian missionaries on Aug. 15 when they were distributing their leaflets,” the daily reported. “They were brought to the police station and beaten up. Interestingly, instead of taking action against the attackers, the police detained five of the Christian leaders for nine hours.”

Christians were also attacked in the area on June 4 and June 22, it added.

Uttarakhand is ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

 

Attacks in Karnataka, Kerala

Suspected Hindu extremists attacked at least three more churches in the southern state of Karnataka, where violence against Christians rose to new heights after tensions began in Orissa.

On Sunday (Sept. 21), two churches were vandalized in the state capital, Bangalore, and another church was attacked in the Kodagu district, about 300 kilometers (186 miles) from Bangalore.

In Bangalore, extremists desecrated the St. James Church in Mariammanapalya near Hebbal area and the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus in Rajarajeshwarinagar area, reported The Times of India. Police told the daily that they had detained seven people and suspended a constable for negligence in protecting the churches.

In Kodagu district, members of the Brethren’s Church in Nellihudikeri area found portions of the front glass facade of the church broken on Sunday morning, reported the daily. The vandalism occurred despite two constables guarding the church.

Karnataka police arrested the state convener of VHP youth wing Bajrang Dal, Mahendra Kumar, on Friday night (Sept. 19) in connection with the spate of attacks on churches and prayer halls in several parts of the state. Bajrang Dal extremists vandalized numerous churches and Christian institutions in various parts of Karnataka earlier this month.

On Monday (Sept. 22), anguished Catholic Archbishop of Bangalore the Rev. Dr. Bernard Moras told Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa that he was ready to “shed blood and give his life for Christ,” reported the Economic Times.

Yeddyurappa had called on the archbishop and senior state officials after an emergency cabinet meeting. Archbishop Moras “greeted the visitors with a grim face without the customary geniality,” the daily reported, “and blurted out his anguish: ‘I am deeply hurt and saddened. This is not a happy occasion to meet the head of the state.’”

The Karnataka chief minister assured the Christian minority community that security at churches and Christian institutions had been increased. He also claimed that the attacks on churches were part of a conspiracy to malign the BJP in Karnataka.

Yeddyurappa said police had arrested three persons including the son of a local Congress Party leader in connection with a violent incident in the Sagar area of Shimoga district, reported the Rediff News on Monday (Sept. 22). “Ravi, another person arrested in connection with the attack, is said to have instigated these youth to desecrate churches by promising to pay 1.5 million Indian rupees [US$32,800],” it reported.

Yeddyurappa had earlier blamed the anti-Christian violence in parts of the state on a booklet reportedly circulated by a Christian organization that allegedly hurt Hindu sentiments.

But a fact-finding team of the National Commission for Minorities (NCM), which visited the violence-hit areas of Udupi, Mangalore and Bangalore in Karnataka last week, has indicted the BJP government for “being in league with the Hindu extremist groups. It has failed to check attacks on Christians and churches,” reported the Hindustan Times.

The NCM will submit the report to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

According to The Times of India, two churches were attacked in neighboring Kerala state on Sunday (Sept. 21) near the international airport in Nedumbassery, close to Kochi city.

Some churches were attacked in Kerala last week also.

 

Ban on Extremism – or on Conversion

In the wake of the ongoing wave of anti-Christian attacks in various parts of India, the NCM is mulling recommending a ban on the Bajrang Dal.

The Hindustan Times said the NCM was working towards a unanimous decision seeking tough measures against the Bajrang Dal, as its involvement in “frequent attacks on the minorities and their places of worship across the country has been established beyond doubt.”

The former prime minister of India and chief of the Karnataka-based Janata Dal (Secular) party, H.D. Deve Gowda, also demanded a ban on the Bajrang Dal during a sit-in protest in Delhi yesterday. Several other political parties have also urged the federal government to ban the Bajrang Dal.

But a senior BJP leader, Venkaiah Naidu, termed conversion as the root cause of violence and social disturbances, saying a strong federal law to prevent religious conversion across the country would be brought if BJP regained power in the general elections expected to be held early next year, reported PTI on Sunday (Sept. 21).

The BJP leader also asked the Orissa state government to strictly implement the existing anti-conversion law in the state.

The VHP’s central governing body is likely to deliberate on ways to further intensify its campaign against religious conversions in Orissa’s Kandhamal district at its two-day “brain- storming session” in Delhi beginning tomorrow, The Statesman daily reported.

The Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations of North America (FIACONA) will hold a rally tomorrow at Lafayette Square in front of the White House in Washington, D.C. – the day Prime Minister Singh will meet with U.S. President George W. Bush – demanding an end to violence against Christians in India.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has sent a letter to President Bush urging him to raise pressing concerns about religious freedom in India during his meeting with Prime Minister Singh.  

Report from Compass Direct News

IRAN: ‘APOSTASY’ BILL APPEARS LIKELY TO BECOME LAW


International pressure sought against mandatory death penalty for ‘apostates.’

LOS ANGELES, September 23 (Compass Direct News) – Without international pressure there is little to stop the Iranian government from ratifying a bill that will make “apostasy,” or leaving Islam, a capital crime, say human rights groups and experts.

On Sept. 9 the Iranian parliament approved a new penal code by a vote of 196-7 calling for a mandatory death sentence for apostates, or those who leave Islam. The Christian and Baha’i communities of Iran are most likely to be affected by this decision.

“Unless there is a coordinated and very strong effort from the international community to place pressure on Iran for this, I don’t think there will be anything stopping the Iranian government from passing this legislation,” Joseph Grieboski, founder of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, told Compass.

The bill still has to make its way through Iran’s policy-making process before it becomes law. Parliament is reviewing it article by article, after which it will be sent to Iran’s most influential body, the Guardian Council, which will rule on it.

The council is made up of six conservative theologians appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by parliament. This body has the power to veto any bill it deems inconsistent with the constitution and Islamic law.

In the case of the new penal code, however, which appears to be a return to a strict adherence of sharia (Islamic law), sources said they do not expect the Guardian Council to reject the penal code.

The timing of the debate on the penal code is not coincidental, said Grieboski. While the international community is focused on Iran’s nuclear activities, he said, the Iranian government appears to be taunting the West with deliberate human rights violations.

“Because of the nuclear issues, ones like these get put on the backburner, which means that the regime can move with great liberty to install legislation like this with impunity, because the nuclear issue gives them cover,” said Grieboski.

Iran has been criticized for its treatment of Baha’is, Zoroastrians and Christians, who have all suffered under the current regime.

“The Baha’is and the Christians are the ones being used as pawns by the regime in its dance with the West,” said Grieboski. “Iran is a human rights black hole in the middle of the world.”

A source told Compass that when he discussed the apostasy article in the penal code with some of the reformists in Iran’s parliament, they responded by saying they were not aware of the apostasy bill. The source argued that the Iranian government was trying to bury the apostasy article in the 113-page penal code.

“I am not sure there is an adequate means of underscoring how serious this law is in terms of violation of international law and a violation of the fundamental freedom of religion or belief,” said Kit Bigelow of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States.

She urged people to write their representatives in their respective governments.

International pressure is crucial if the apostasy bill is to be countered, agreed a Christian source. He recalled how in 2005 Christian convert Hamid Pourmand was acquitted of apostasy as a direct result of international pressure.

“I don’t know who you are, but apparently the rest of the world does,” the presiding judge had told Pourmand, according to media sources. “You must be an important person, because many people from government have called me, saying to cancel your case.”

The news of parliament approving the bill comes on the heels of two Christians being officially charged with apostasy this summer. Mahmood Matin Azad, 52, and Arash Basirat, 44, have been in prison since May 15 and now await their court date.

Although their future and that of other non-Muslims looks grim, some believe this bill is the act of a government desperately trying to hang onto power.

“I have to say the Iranian regime is tightening severely its control over as many aspects of the lives of Iranian people as they possibly can,” said Grieboski. “And that, I think, is the sign of a weakening regime.”

The original penal code was passed into law in 1991 and last amended in 1996.

Report from Compass Direct News

BUSHFIRE SEASON HAS STARTED


The bushfire season is off and running in New South Wales, Australia. There have already been several fires in my region of the Mid North Coast.

On Saturday there was a fire just south of Bulahdelah that closed the Pacific Highway for two hours. From what I understand the fire is thought to have begun by a discarded cigarette thrown from a car travelling on the highway.

The fire started at about 3.30 pm and as the fire intensified cars were seen travelling on the wrong side of the highway in a bid to keep clear of the fire. With the thick smoke about this was not the best move to make.

Another fire was burning off the highway near the Karuah Bridge on Monday, again producing thick smoke.

With the massive amount of growth in the bush over the last couple of wet growth seasons, the fuel load is now massive and fuel reduction burns have been limited. With temperatures already peaking in the low thirties (Celsius), the season ahead looks grim.

SERIOUS PERSECUTIONS AND MARTYRDOM IN THE INDIAN STATE OF ORISSA


By an Indian Missionary to India

Note from the editor:  The following is written by a man who returned to India to establish better training for his fellow Indians.  He is personally known by me and I believe his reports are trustworthy.  I have decided since this was going to be published in a searchable web site not to post his name for prudence and safety sake.

-       R. L. Gerard, DOGMA Ministries Servant.

 

Many of you have expressed your concern about our safety and assured us of your continuing prayers for us. Thanks for your encouraging letters! The situation in Orissa is grim. Persecution continues unabated. Media and social organizations are kept out of the troubled Kandhamal District of Orissa. Strangely the government media is affirming the continuation of curfew and fresh killing of Christians in this troubled district while declaring that the situation is under control.  Everyday churches are being destroyed and Christians are being killed.

 Are people really so aggressively religious that they persecute Christians day in and day out here? Or has the lure of plundering Christians to become rich overnight had any role to play in persecution? How do Hindu fundamentalists sponsor these kinds of sustained riots? After a wave of Church demolitions, house burning, killing and extensive plundering, three days back the reconversion of Christians into Hinduism started. Many pastors have fled into other districts. We are hearing reports that many Christians are returning to Hinduism for the fear of being burnt to death. It is very discouraging to know that even pastor’s families are melting under this pressure, going through these rituals of home coming returning to Hinduism. There are rumours everywhere – so much so that it is difficult to know what is true and we are living in constant fear.

The Churches at Balangir, in my home district, have already been threatened in writing that if they don’t returned to Hinduism by the 23rd September certain Christian leaders of Balangir will be killed. My district has a large number of Christians living in a cluster. One thing is sure that any flare up between Hindus and Christians in Balangir will lead to a big fight and bloodshed. We are hearing that Bhubaneswar city, where we are living, is the last target of the Hindu fundamentalists. They have already shortlisted over one hundred Christian leaders of Bhubaneswar area to kill them.

It is true that hundreds of houses belonging to Christians have been destroyed or burned. In the light of such destruction, rumours are causing a lot of fear among the Christians here. I have desisted from reporting to you any news of Orissa because there are no credible reports to send you. The most distressful thing is the irresponsible action of the Orissa government – persecuting the Christians hand in glove with BJP, the Hindu party, instead of defending the weak and the poor. Please pray for the Christians who have lost everything overnight. My heart particularly goes out for the families of those Pastors who have been killed or are on the run and have lost everything for their faith! There is hope for the Church in this troubled state if we can help these Pastors to settle down again and regroup their flocks.

I am forwarding an email which has a few moving pictures of torture and destruction in Orissa. I do not know the sources and details of these pictures. These are obviously, from Orissa state. Anyway, I am sending them to you. I hope and pray that these pictures will encourage you to pray for the persecuted ones in Orissa and India.

We have accumulated a few thousands of books for ****** ******** Seminary.  Just one spark from the enemy can reduce our precious collections to ashes. Many of our faculty and students belong to the Kandhamal district of Orissa where this persecution is intense.  Their parents and family members are hiding and are constant on the move. We will deeply appreciate your prayers for the safety of our family, staff, students and our assets. Thanks for your continuing prayer, partnership and friendship in difficult times like this!

Name withheld.

ECONOMIC RECOVERY AROUND THE CORNER


Given the state of the world’s financial situation at the moment you would probably think that there was little hope of a turnaround anytime soon – yet I’m prepared to go out on a limb and say that an economic recovery for Australia is just around the corner.

I’m no economist and I don’t pretend to know a great deal about financial matters on a global scale, yet I do believe that a turnaround is coming reasonably quickly for Australia. I really see no reason for that not happening soon. Sure, things still look pretty grim around the world, but things here really aren’t as bad as elsewhere and the panic in Australia is somewhat ill-founded I believe.

Perhaps a good tip at the moment would be to invest in real estate and the like at the moment – rather than in shares and banks. Banks rip you off anyway! I just won a dispute with a bank over fees and charges after threatening to go to the industry ombudsman (or whoever it might be).

Just some amateur thoughts perhaps …